I developed a mercurial nature at a very early age. I learned to internalize and keep the essence of me hidden away. Call it survival skills or genetics, but I became withdrawn from people and refused to believe I needed anyone else. Instead, I became a listener. An observer of the world around me.
Nothing fascinated me more than the adults orbiting around our life in Arizona. There were gin rummy nights soaked in sloe gin and loud conversation coming from a room filled with the thick fog of smoke. I would sit on a chair in the living room, close enough to hear every word, yet nonchalant enough to look as if I cared about the game of Monopoly being played by the kids. I hovered between both worlds and lost all interest in whatever childhood I had left.
My immature crushes on Dylan and Daniel were a thing of distant memory. I had a new object of affection and as I sat perched on the arm of the couch, I wondered why I had wasted time on mere boys. He was every cliché of a cowboy that had ever been written. Wearing road weary blue jeans, black cowboy boots and a silver and turquoise belt buckle the size of a dinner plate, he walked into our house one night and I fell in love. I stood there mutely staring at him as he was introduced around and reluctantly left the room so the adults could do whatever they did that made them cackle with laughter and talk loudly at each other.
The entire night I stared at his face. He was tanned, probably younger than he looked and sporting a neat mustache beneath a mangled nose. He was in town for the rodeo and one of the women of the group had brought him home. He sat in his chair and she stood at his side, his arm casually around her waist. I shivered at the thought of his hairy arm on my skin. He was as ugly as he was beautiful, but I guess that was most of the attraction.
I became eager to fetch beers and refill the chip bowl, as the night grew longer and the crowd rowdier. He pinched my cheek, calling me cute as a button and plopped a sweat stained cowboy hat on my head. I had resisted the urge to run my fingers through his dark curly hair and stumbled over whatever thought came to my head. I did not have a clue the power of lust yet, but I was awash in the hormones of puberty that were yet to develop.
It was close to midnight when my mother insisted I go to bed. That apparently was the witching hour when the adults could no longer tolerate children’s presence and the more outrageous things would happen once we were ensconced in our bedroom. I cajoled, pleaded, but to no avail. As I made my way out of the kitchen, fighting back the tears that threatened to embarrass me, Merle had grabbed my hands, putting them on his slender hips and declared he would bunny hop me to my room.
There it was, this grown man, hopping down the hallway to my room, laughing as I giggled and then stopping at the door of my room. I wanted him to kiss my cheek, to feel the tickle of his mustache on against my skin, but instead he tousled my hair. He declared me a cutie, and then he was gone. I was both mortified and elated at being called cute.
Later that night, I snuck out of my room to tiptoe to the bathroom and peek down the hall at the adults. Merle sat in one of our kitchen chairs, his girl of choice on his lap and he was kissing the slender slope of her neck. She laughed and squirmed, her drink sloshing from her glass onto the table. Her mascara was running down her cheeks and she was undoubtedly drunker than anyone else at the table was, but still he wanted her. I was cute, but was she what men wanted?
I saw Merle again at the rodeo that ended the Fourth of July celebration. This holiday was a big deal in our small town. It meant a parade of floats, men on horses and a shoot out in the town square. There would be smoke, blanks being shot and men falling covered in fake blood and then carried to the parking lot of the Silver Spur in wood coffins. Sunburned, covered in sweat and cranky, we would then drive to the fairgrounds where we would sit on the hood of our truck and watch the cowboys try to stay on the horses.
There had been talk the rodeo would be canceled that year. There had been a tragic death at the last one. A horse had bucked and fallen on top of its rider, puncturing several organs and killing him two days later. Although it was by its very nature a brutal sport, the death hung heavy over the festivities. It was decided to have the rodeo anyway, and just after the National Anthem, there was a tribute to the fallen cowboy. I remember watching the cowboys, lined along the fence, wiping tears from their eyes and hiding beneath the brims of their hats.
As I sat on the hood, frying in the open sun and wishing I were anywhere but there, Merle walked up to my father. They shook hands and then he turned to me, a beatific smile on his face and gave me a wink. In my burgeoning adult like mind, winking back was the thing to do. So I did. He threw back his head, roaring with laughter and squeezed my shoulder. He told my father then, something that has resonated with me my entire life, she is going to be a handful.
I was a handful, but not in the way he probably meant. I grew up to make horrible decisions when it came to the matters of the cold dead heart I had tucked away. Somewhere along the way, I lost all sense of myself and a belief I could be loved for who I really was. I was a handful because I was impossible to know or pin down. I was loved, but whom did they really love?
As the sun set and everyone was leaving the rodeo, Merle walked to the back of the truck where I sat with my sister drinking a coca cola and fighting off heat exhaustion. He leaned in and kissed my cheek, his mustache tickling my cheek. It was not a kiss of someone making an inappropriate gesture to an underage girl. It was meant to reassure. I knew it even then.
“You’ll be okay, kiddo.” He said his voice soft and gentle like his kiss had been.
I’m not sure what he saw or thought he saw, but I knew his words were meant to convey a message of hope. Looking back, I think he meant hang on until you really are an adult. You will see all of this means so little. You will have your own child, your own life and someday you’ll stop searching for who you are. You will just find her, and you’ll be okay until you do.
Merle left town. Springerville went back to normal after the Fourth of July fireworks faded from the sky. There would be more card parties in the house, more drinks and laughter, but it had lost its luster. I chose to bury my nose in a book rather than eaves drop on conversations I could not yet understand.
School was out soon and one morning I woke up to find my mother crying at the kitchen table. I heard their words, but it was as if they were speaking from miles away. Just snippets of information penetrated my denial. The sawmill was closing. No work for my father. It was time to sell the house and move back to Kentucky.